What connects Marianne Faithfull, the actress Emma Thompson, the German electronic group Tangerine Dream, and the British comedian and quiz host, Alexander Armstrong? The answer is that they have all recorded musical settings of ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’, one of W. B. Yeats’s great early poems. ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ was published in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in 1889, when Yeats was still in his mid-twenties. Although this is one of Yeats’s more straightforward lyrics, it’s worth unpacking some of the language and imagery. But before the textual analysis, here’s a reminder of the poem.
Down by the Salley Gardens
Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.
In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
What are ‘salley gardens’ and what was W. B. Yeats doing down by them with his beloved? Although it’s not known for sure, the most convincing piece of etymological excavation or analysis is the theory that the ‘salley gardens’ refer to the banks of the river in Ballysadare (near Sligo). Willow trees along the river, used to cultivate thatch for the roofs of houses, may have given rise to the name for the gardens, via the Latin Salix for the willow tree (cognate with the Irish word saileach). But enough of such musings…
‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ was, by Yeats’s own admission, an attempt to reconstruct an old song supposedly sung by an old peasant woman in the village of Ballisodare, Sligo (there’s that ‘salley = willow’ connection for you). Curiously, a ballad titled ‘The Rambling Boys of Pleasure’ contains the verse:
Down by yon flowery garden my love and I we first did meet.
I took her in my arms and to her I gave kisses sweet
She bade me take life easy just as the leaves fall from the tree.
But I being young and foolish, with my darling did not agree.
In summary, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ sees Yeats’s speaker ruefully reminiscing about his younger times with his sweetheart, when they would go and meet by the salley gardens. His beloved would entreat him to ‘take love easy’, i.e. not be too impetuous or rash when it came to love and relationships, but he didn’t heed her words because he was young and foolish.
In the second stanza, they stand in a field near the river, and the poet’s sweetheart bids him to relax and take life easy – to adopt a ‘whatever will be, will be’ or ‘come what may’ approach, much as the grass takes its time slowly but steadily growing on the weirs. But, the poet tells us, he was young and foolish and didn’t listen – though now, looking back, he is ‘full of tears’, regretting the fact that he didn’t heed his lover’s advice.
Yeats tells this little story of regret in quatrains comprising two pairs of rhyming couplets. In the first stanza, there’s no wiggle-room: both pairs of rhymes are tightly clustered around the long ‘e’ vowel sound, as we get ‘meet’, ‘feet’, ‘tree’, and ‘agree’. This broadens out into ‘weirs’ and ‘tears’ in the second stanza, but the continuation between first and second stanza reinforces the regret the present speaker feels for his younger, hot-headed actions. The implication is that he was too serious, too headstrong, too quick to fall in love and get caught up in the midst of things.
The lover is delicate and pure, with ‘little snow-white feet’ and a ‘snow-white hand’. She is identified with nature through the (mirrored) third lines of both stanzas: ‘She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree’ and ‘She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs’. As such, the poet’s beloved embodies all that is pure, natural, and free, counselling her impatient lover to take his time and let life happen.
‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ may be an early poem by W. B. Yeats, but it remains one of his most celebrated lyric poems because of the strain of regret and sorrow running through it.
About W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.
His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).
Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.